On assignment in Rome in the late 1990s, I had the great privilege of living above this extraordinary painting: the Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velazquez. The reason is simple. I was one of dozens of tenants of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, and my apartment was directly above the gallery housing this and other masterpieces. The few times I saw the portrait, I found it to be both magnificent and quietly chilling. So did Francis Bacon, who based his screaming popes on this masterpiece - and refused, to his dying day, ever to see the original.
That original is now hanging in a comprehensive survey of Velazquez at Paris's Grand Palais. Though Las Meninas is absent (it never leaves the Prado), Paris has managed to pull together enough great works by Velazquez to give you a pretty satisfying overview of his career. His court paintings of the royal offspring -- particularly "Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback," a major loan from the Prado -- are breathtaking illustrations of why this Seville-born artist has come to be known as "the painter's painter."
The exhibition also shows his artistic process. You see his sometimes awkward (yes, awkard) early paintings, produced while studying under the master Francisco Pacheco. You notice the overwhelming influence of Caravaggio, even before Velazquez ever traveled to Italy. And you realize that Velazquez's great artistic breakthrough happened when he was finally admitted as official court painter. Royal approval set him on track to greatness.
The show ends July 13: http://www.grandpalais.fr.